?

Log in

The Titfield Thunderbolt Hue and Cry Whisky Galore The Man in The White Suit Previous Previous Next Next
The Titfield Thunderbolt
Heisenberg might have stayed here
qatsi
Book Review: The Marches, by Rory Stewart
I'd seen one half of a pair of TV programmes by Stewart on the consequences of Hadrian's Wall for Britain, but missed the other programme. Nonetheless it piqued my interest and I went looking for more, discovering this book as "forthcoming" on Amazon. After something of a hiatus, it was published last year and I enthusiastically bought a copy in the final work book sale of the year.

The thesis presented on TV was that Hadrian's Wall imposed an artificial boundary across a culture that existed broadly from the Humber to the Forth, and laid the foundations for England and Scotland that we know today (though - for the benefit of any southern readers - the present border does not align with Hadrian's Wall). The book combines this idea - which Stewart attributes to his father - with Stewart's walks around the region, first with his father following the course of Hadrian's Wall, then later from Stewart's house near Penrith (for which he is the MP), meandering across the north Lakes, the borders, and up to his father's house near Crieff in Perthshire.

Much of the book forms a reminiscence of Brian Stewart, who does come across as an interesting character. His recorded thoughts, clearly from another, colonial, age, and frequently politically incorrect, are intertwined with Rory's own reminiscences of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the question of the Middle Land, though, little hard evidence is to be found: in fact Rory Stewart discovers that a history of different land management and policy over the past few hundred years present a clear division between England and Scotland, and the psychogeography too, though unconfrontational, draws a clear line. Nonetheless, fragments of history are presented to give some idea of the transitions over time, from before the Romans, through the Northumbrian "Golden Age" of Bede (in which the region was a European centre of scholarship) and the ancient kingdom of Cymru (Cumbria), then Vikings, Normans and Border Reivers (essentially state-sponsored terrorism on both sides), before a quick settling down following the Union of Crowns. The final part of the book deals movingly with the last weeks and days leading to Brian Stewart's death, but it does not disturb the balance of the book, which is already tinged with romantic melancholy.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Due to a mix-up earlier this month, Mrs Q had already visited Tate Britain's Paul Nash exhibition, so I went on my own yesterday. There was quite a wide range of work, and I'd seen a few pieces before, but there was also quite a lot that seemed new to me. Some of the early works, such as The Three, immediately made me think of Magritte, although it was rather later that Nash moved explicitly to a surrealist style. I particularly liked the paintings from World War I We Are Making A New World, The Ypres Salient at Night and The Menin Road, and Totes Meer from World War II; but I also enjoyed other landscapes such as various pictures of Wittenham Clumps, sea- and beach-scapes, and Equivalents for the Megaliths, combining Nash's interests with the prehistoric, the mystic, and the surreal. There are a few works by other artists in the exhibition as well, from which I'd pick out Tristram Hillier's Pylons.

I decided to walk from the Tate along the river and by the Houses of Parliament to the National Gallery; on my way by the Jewel Tower I passed a small GMB demonstration with a coffin emblazoned with the NHS logo; and down Whitehall a large number of people with medals on display, presumably for some regimental reunion or other function. In between, there were of course crowds around Parliament itself. For the time being, it all seemed reassuringly very much like Business As Usual in Britain.

At the National Gallery I visited the exhibition of Australia's Impressionists. It's a much smaller exhibition - only a couple of rooms - but the paintings were certainly interesting. Beginning with some very small (but interesting) paintings, the exhibition moves on to larger works. Being of the late nineteenth century, one wouldn't have recognised Sydney harbour from the paintings; but some of them, such as Tom Roberts' A Break Away! and Arthur Streeton's Fire's On, have typical Australian colour. A novelty among the collection was Streeton's Sirius Cove, a thin vertical work very reminiscent of a Japanese scroll painting. The exhibition was rounded off by several works by John Russell.

As I was there, I took the opportunity to check out Paolo Uccello, whose paintings in the National Gallery had been referenced by the Tate with regard to the Menin Road painting I'd seen earlier. I suppose I could see monumental and narrative connections to a work like Saint George and the Dragon. Finally, I wandered to the eighteenth and nineteenth century galleries; it wasn't hard to find the Canalettos, the Turners and the Constables.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: Shadows of War, by Michael Ridpath
Although there may be a bias towards more up-market titles, the book sale at work contains all sorts. This looked like an airport thriller, but perhaps of a better sort, and I think that's how it turned out.

There must be no shortage of novels set in the second world war, and indeed, no shortage of real-life events on which to base them. This one takes its inspiration from the Venlo incident, in which British intelligence officers, following a false lead on a plot to depose Hitler, were abducted from the Netherlands by German security services. This is the point of departure into fiction; in the novel, the driver of the British car, who escapes, is Conrad de Lancey, another British officer drafted into the plot by virtue of his German connections whilst a student. So, one thread of the plot focuses on his dialog with a student friend now working in the Abwehr, committed to Germany but not to the Nazi regime; whilst another thread examines the role of the Duke of Windsor in Paris, inspecting the French defences, and reporting on them ... to whom? Meanwhile, political groupings in London are moving beneath the water.

The cleverness of the book is in showing a range of attitudes and motivations, all focused on ending the war, and most of them honourable. From time to time, reality is stretched, as one might expect; some of the characters are paper-thin, and some of the conspiracy reaches high levels of paranoia, but overall it just about hangs together. One feels there should be an inevitable conclusion, but the reader is definitely kept guessing.

Tags:

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
I'm not sure why this turned up in the work book sale, as it's the 2010 edition; maybe it was filler in part of a package shipped for review, or discovered at the back of a cupboard somewhere. Anyhow, it had been on my Amazon list for quite a while.

I had high hopes for this book, which were only partly fulfilled. The difficulty is not with the subject, so much as with its presentation. Taleb's writing frequently comes over as arrogant and without empathy (particularly ironic as in the appendix he has a section, devoid of sensibility, on Asperger's, in which he discusses this very trait); he also regularly exhibits a Gove-like disdain for "experts". This later becomes clarified to be specific to economics and social sciences, but the first impression already damaged the author in the mind of this reader. He also seems to be unable to resist any opportunity to take a dig at the French; even I find this out of place.

There are two main stems to his argument: that real-world probability distributions, particularly in economics and risk, are not Gaussian and therefore conventional wisdom is of little value as it discards outliers; and that "Black Swan" events (positive or negative) are the only events that matter. The first of these is reasonable; I once read that much of economics was based on classical thermodynamics, but I can't remember whether the article was dated 1st April. He presents some arguments for the second - in particular a graph showing the relative return of the stock market over 50 years, with and without the 10 days with greatest percentage changes, is compelling. But this doesn't entirely detract from the idea that, as these outliers happen rarely, most of the time the experts would probably be right. (In the appendix, he produces an example in which he appears to fail to distinguish between a "1 in 1000 chance" and a "1 in 1000-year chance" - unless one knows the underlying frequency of the event such a comparison is meaningless). There are a few real insights - drawing on the inapplicability of certain methods and distributions because events are not independent, but are in a complex feedback loop, and linking this to fractals and the work of Mandelbrot, for example - but these are buried quite deeply and probably don't impinge on readers not already with at least a passing familiarity with those concepts and work. His bar-bell strategy, combining the extremes of risk, seems valid, but it appears written from the perspective of someone with already substantial means; the ordinary person is unlikely to reap much real reward from it if applied rigorously.

The book was initially published in 2007. The appendix, added in 2010, moderates the tone to some extent. Taleb seems to have learnt some of the art of politics, but still can't resist lauding it over those whose models didn't predict the financial crisis. He doesn't offer alternative models; but rather than just saying "you're wrong", he now says "your model doesn't work well in these kinds of situations". It's an interesting book, but caveat emptor.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: Kind of Blue - A Political Memoir, by Ken Clarke
I finished the previous book just at the right time for a Christmas present, and here it was. Clarke's autobiography follows a fairly standard pattern for a high-profile political figure, and it's written very much in Clarke's own laid-back style. It's easy to forget how many ministerial and cabinet posts he held between 1979 and 1997.

Some things do stick out. For example, he estimates he graduated from Cambridge in 1963 with an amount of debt equivalent to about £60,000 today, and the bank manager just sighed and extended his overdraft (which Clarke claims took until 1979 to dismiss altogether) so that he could buy appropriate clothes to pursue his legal career. Is this the kind of experience and thinking that drives higher education policy today, I wonder? The finances - for the student and the bank manager - are rather different when less than 10% of people pursue a university education, than about half. Another area that highlights contention is his time at the Department of Health, where he provides a persuasive case for reform of the NHS (it seems to me that the Conservatives will never get a fair hearing on health, just as Labour will never get a fair hearing on defence) and is quite castigating of the BMA, while at the same time fighting off Thatcherite tendencies toward a more American-style health system.

Indeed, Clarke asserts that while he was a Tory "wet", on economic matters he was more in line with Thatcher and free-market thinking - an implication that this may have been the reason for his continued ministerial survival. His views on the civil service vary from department to department; while there were always good individuals, the performance of the Home Office comes in for particular criticism.

The conclusion of the Thatcher period of government occurs about half way through the book, and in the second half the subject of Europe raises itself more continuously. The Major years were squandered by political in-fighting over Maastricht; his view on Blair is that opportunities were missed to make a better case for Europe; the final chapter documents his despair at the 2016 referendum. Interestingly, in an ever-so-laid-back way, Clarke sticks the knife into Major and Lamont for unaffordable promises made in the 1992 election campaign, identifying them as the source of the trouble that led to Black Wednesday, which in turn triggered the implosion of the Conservative party, releasing the far right and Eurosceptic demons in search of scapegoats for Thatcher's Untergang. He also identifies this time as the point at which politicians ceased to lead and instead began to follow public opinion, particularly as presented by the tabloid press. On Cameron he is similarly unimpressed; indeed, once again an election promise (again, made by someone probably not expecting to win outright) led to the current catastrophe. The book includes his accidental bit-part in Theresa May's election campaign; Clarke remains hopeful, but so far her leadership has, in my view, transformed her from enigma to empty.

Tags: , ,

1 comment or Leave a comment
qatsi
Well, 2016 has been rubbish, but let's try and pick out some more positive things from the year:

Other highlights: (Fiction) The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street; (non-Fiction) Admiral Collingwood - Nelson's own hero, A Very Courageous Decision - The Inside Story of Yes Minister, Steaming to Victory, Empire of the Fund, The Secret History of the Blitz; (Music) The Michael Nyman Band at the Barbican, Věc Makropulos, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Wagner, LSO/Haitink/Mahler 3; (Museums and Exhibitions) Nikolai Astrup at Dulwich, Bosch at the Prado, Segovia, and Valle de los Caídos; (Food and Drink) El Inti del Oro, Madrid. No award for Film and Theatre this year - again I've seen too little of either, and not been bowled over by what I have seen.

It's difficult not to have a sense of foreboding for 2017; but that way, perhaps it can be better than expected. Some tricky times ahead at work, never mind the world at large.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Most of the spoiler-free comment I've seen has been very complimentary about Rogue One; I'm afraid I found it adequate but uninspiring. SpoilersCollapse )It patches up quite a few holes, but not all, in the story arc.

Tags:

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: Welcome to Just A Minute, by Nicholas Parsons
Oops, wrong panel game, though in fact there is an anecdote in here involving Nicholas Parsons, Lionel Blair, and Fanny Craddock. This book has two purposes - to explain the origins of Just A Minute, and to showcase Parsons' favourite excerpts from nearly 50 years of broadcasting. In fact, Ian Messiter produced a show called One Minute Please! in the 1950s with remarkably similar rules, a fact apparently not lost on early listeners. Parsons wanted to be one of the panellists rather than the chairman, but the producers decided he should take the chair. In fact in one series the chair rotated, giving Parsons his opportunity, and afterwards the consensus was that he fitted the chair better. In the first few series there were other experiments, such as rounds with additional rules prohibiting certain common words or phrases. Mostly, though, the book functions as a compendium of challenges, unbroken minutes, guest appearances, and the changes in the "regulars" of the panel over the years. Outraged Kenneth Williams, competitive Clement Freud, charming Derek Nimmo and soporific Peter Jones, eventually giving way to, inter alia, Paul Merton, Linda Smith, Sue Perkins and Graham Norton. I do have the feeling that Parsons could have been more selective in his choices, but it's an easy and enjoyable read.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: China and America - A Time of Reckoning, by Charles Dumas
There's a book-swap shelf at work and unsurprisingly, although there's a range of general material, there are quite a few more specialist books in the realm of economics and finance. This slim volume dates from 2007-8 (with an "appendix", in fact about half the book, extracted from a previous book written in 2005) and I have to say it hasn't fared well. The opening chapters are a bit technical; although it's illustrated with graphs rather than equations, I imagine the same law of reduced readership ought to apply as to popular (hard) science. Rather than follow Mr Buffett's advice, it doesn't help that the thesis that is rammed home is that problems in the world economy aren't down to American over-spending, but rather to "Eurasian" (principally China, Japan and Germany) over-saving. Technically, of course, a reason America (and Britain, and other countries) are able to borrow cheaply is that there is money available from these savers. Also, of course, the paradox of thrift applies: things don't work too well if we all save and no-one spends. But you have to look at where we've got to and wonder whether things have turned out well so far. Although the PIGS get a mention, the author's focus is on Italy rather than Greece, which was considered too small to be problematic. The artificial exchange rate between the Renminbi and the Dollar features quite prominently, and the author assesses the Chinese authorities unlikely to act in a way that will prevent, ultimately, some sort of trade war. Globalisation and populism also get mentioned; on the consequences of the first for the second, the author may be in the right ball park, although with things having taken longer to come to a head than anticipated.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment
qatsi
Book Review: The Secret History of the Blitz, by Joshua Levine
I imagine there are so many books on this subject it must be difficult to produce anything original. Whilst we may think of people sleeping on Tube platforms and iconic photographs such as St Paul's Survives, Levine probes earlier into the war, and beyond London, from a shooting incident at an Oxford college, through the massive air raid on Coventry, to drilling for oil in Sherwood Forest. Levine considers whether "Blitz spirit" was a myth, and finds evidence to show that all of humanity was present, heroes and villains, but settles in acceptance that our folk memory, though partial, is a broadly fair representation. The picture that emerges is a very British one of "muddling through", with authorities initially reluctant to allow the use of Tube stations as deep shelters and frowning on people who left provincial towns and cities at night to seek lower risk shelter in the countryside. Later chapters deal with topics such as the relaxing of social norms; internment and domestic espionage; race relations, particularly in relation to European refugees and Colonial soldiers; and petty and organised crime. By casting his net wide, Levine has come up with a very interesting book that does much more than scratch the surface.

Tags: ,

Leave a comment